Monday, December 6, 2010

Problems as Natural Components

Here's a thought.  Can’t sleep, maybe it’s the heat or the late afternoon nap.

There is this eerie widespread belief that people hold, intentionally and subconsciously.  People back home, from my past, and even I often hold this belief, as if it is our default setting. 

This belief is that I, the volunteer in Africa, belong to a particular picture, and that problems must exist to make this picture whole, complete, and true.  These problems, which are stereotypes of Tanzania, the developing world, and black people, are numerous and varied.   Let me elaborate with some examples.

Lets start with the notion of poverty.  The concept of poverty implies a lack of material goods.  Poverty exists in my school, and amongst my students.  I have been to many of their homes, and it's heartbreaking.  But not all my students are in poverty.  In fact, most are not.  Just as a simple measurement, I asked those with televisions in their houses to raise their hands, and about 70% did.  To this, should I be disappointed?  Should I, or the KOICA office, or anyone else feel unwanted or unsatisfied because I am not in some place that is completely decrepit?  Should you be surprised to know that my classroom consists of a roof and a blackboard, rather than a large empty space under a giant mango tree?  Of course not, but there are pervasive attitudes that make one feel dejected when one realizes that the preconceived notions of poverty are in fact not present.

There is a short documentary clip famous amongst the KOICA volunteers depicting the lives of previous Mtwara volunteers, especially on how tough the living environment is.  It describes the poverty of Mtwara as a place where livelihood mostly consists of "selling a couple of tomatoes and coconuts."  Of course, this is fallacy.  There are shops, companies, and even a port.  The economy is not very robust, but there really is no need to evade the fact that the poverty one looks for is not as apparent.  Korean media who come to Tanzania for sappy stories are the most disappointed to know that poverty is slipping away their fingers, and the workers in the development field are not far off.  To them, this (not always but often) represents “work” slowly fleeing away.  I ask, isn't this something that is worth celebrating?  Yet, more often than it should, I find it lamented.  Strange.

Another prime example is low school performance.  I've complained enough, there is no need to further elaborate that my students disappoint me like crazy and are not hard-working at all.  This problem, however, is considered as something that is so normal to the entire secondary education in Tanzania.  Of course, this is not a challenge that Sabasaba faces alone, but it is not endemic either.  There are schools with high performance in Tanzania, but to the low performance of schools one remarked: isn't that what all volunteers naturally face?  One volunteer whose school faces similar problems took the issue more casually, claiming that it is how it is in Tanzania.  So much wisdom from an expert who has been here for only a year, not to mention the number of hours he/she works.

This bitching is getting out of control.  I admit that my most embarrassing moments of my time here have been when I realized that I too harbor this attitude unconsciously.  I try to emancipate myself from this, but it is so engrained in me.  Recently, I’ve been helping my dear neighbor Ninje on getting a second hand laptop, and I have had some struggles trying to put together the images of teacher salary, three kids, and a computer in one smooth image.  The conflicting thoughts that went through my head were not tantamount to the battle of Jacob v. Angel, but I wonder why I couldn’t have helped him without associating any problems with this endeavor.  It’s just a purchase.


Kabir said...

another great post tomzanian. your blog is such an inspiration

TK said...

thanks, but i do need a better remedy for sleeplessness